Only 2.6 percent of K-12 students living within Cy-Fair ISD’s boundaries attend charter schools, but Population and Survey Analysts demographers project that number could increase as more charter school systems expand to the area.

While less than 10 charter schools exist within the district’s boundaries, local students attend at least 43 charter schools, including Harmony Public Schools, International Leadership of Texas and KIPP Houston Public Schools.

YES Prep Northwest opened in August, and at least two more charter schools plan to open in Cy-Fair by 2020.

CFISD Superintendent Mark Henry said the district has lost more than 1,000 students to charter schools since 2014-15, and because state funding is based on average daily attendance of students, this affects operations in the district.

“A charter school moving into CFISD receives $1,765 more [from the state] per student than a student in a CFISD school,” Henry said. “Each of our schools have certain fixed costs, and a reduction of students results in a reduction of operating revenue.”

Allison Serafin, executive director of IDEA Public Schools’ Greater Houston region, said she believes charter schools offer a rigorous curriculum that prepares students for college—especially to economically disadvantaged students.

More than 80 percent of IDEA students qualify for free or reduced lunches, she said.

“What we look for are places across Texas and also the nation where children lack access to great public schools where families are also voting with their feet and wanting more opportunities for their children,” Serafin said.

Charter schools gain traction

Former state Sen. Bill Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant, authored Senate Bill 1 in 1995 to establish the state’s charter school system with the intention of giving families more education options, attracting new teachers and encouraging innovative learning methods. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools estimates 337,100 Texas students attended 774 charter schools in 2017-18.

Open-enrollment charter schools are privately operated and tuition-free, so they rely in part on grants and donations to operate. Although they do not receive local property tax revenue, like other public schools, charter schools receive state funding from the Foundation School Program based on the average daily attendance of students.

According to the Texas Education Agency, charter schools are held accountable academically and fiscally, but they do not have to meet as many state requirements as public schools to allow for more innovative approaches. 

Israel Gomez, a YES Prep Northwest parent, said he chose to enroll his son after learning there were alternative options to CFISD. He said the staff is young and energetic, and his son looks forward to going to school every day.

Gomez said he does not want public school districts to view charters as a threat. However, he thinks it is important parents know they have a choice.

“If teachers know they’re going to be held accountable for the students [and] they know there’s choice for parents to take their children elsewhere, hopefully the mentality of the teachers is that they want to just do good by all their students,” Gomez said.

Unless granted exemptions, each YES Prep student must be accepted to at least one four-year college or university to earn a diploma, according to the student handbook.

A similar policy is in place at IDEA Public Schools, which plans to serve 900 students at four new Houston-area campuses in 2020. Serafin said each student that graduates from the system also takes 11 Advanced Placement courses.

“There is data that shows that even enrolling in a rigorous AP course ensures that a child has a greater likelihood of completing college,” she said.

Aristoi Classical Academy, a charter school in Katy, plans to open a Cy-Fair campus with 200 kindergarten, first- and second-grade students in fall 2020 at Crossover Bible Fellowship, 12332 Perry Road, Houston.

“[Crossover Bible Fellowship] came to us, and their congregation is completely behind the model,” Director of Development Natalie DeJong told Community Impact Newspaper in late 2018. “We don’t want to go somewhere [where] … no one wants us to be.”

Harmony Science Academy-Cypress is slated to open this fall on Greenhouse Road near FM 529. Harmony Public Schools, which has about 2,000 Cy-Fair students attending 13 of its campuses, declined to comment for this story.

Equity concerns

Open-enrollment charter schools can cap enrollment and hold lotteries when there are more applicants than available seats. While the enrollment process is open to any student, charter schools can release students with disciplinary issues.

Henry said public schools must accept and make room for all students, no matter who or how many registers.

“If you think there’s such thing as an open-enrollment charter school, then you believe in unicorns because there is no such thing,” he said. “In charter schools, they pick you. When they talk about school choice, they’re telling the truth—it’s the school’s choice. It’s not the parent’s choice.”

CFISD passed a $932 million budget for 2018-19, but Henry said the district loses $18 million a year due to local students attending charter schools. Texas charter schools will receive about $2.84 billion from the state in 2018-19, up from $757.9 million 10 years ago.

Bill Gumbert, a public education advocate, spoke at a panel discussion about charter schools Feb. 28 at the Berry Center. Although state funds help support charter school operations, he said taxpayers have little say over their board members and bond referendums, which are not subject to voter approval.

“[Y]our local tax dollars are being redistributed by the state and paid to privately operated charter schools that are operating within and outside the boundaries,” he said. “I think any time you throw privatization in the mix and you start talking about business, kids become a dollar sign.”

Thomas Ratliff, a former State Board of Education trustee who also spoke Feb. 28, said charter schools teach to the same state standards as public schools. However, because additional services cost more, he said they might not offer career and technical, gifted and talented, AP or dual-credit courses.

Thomas, son of Bill Ratliff, said he believes the system his father created funds schools disproportionately.

“It was sold on ‘We can do it better, cheaper than the ISDs—then the government schools,’ as they like to call them,” he said.

Lobbying lawmakers

CFISD’s 86th legislative session priorities include opposing the expansion of charter schools into high-performing districts and supporting uniform standards and requirements for all school systems receiving state funds.

IDEA’s legislative priorities call for comprehensive finance reform and ensuring equal treatment between ISDs and charter schools when it comes to zoning and permitting, Serafin said.

Although charter schools may pursue academic excellence, state Rep. Jon Rosenthal, D-Houston, said the funding model should be addressed.

“The danger to the state is that it’s become a business model where it’s profit-driven … and [charter schools] are funded disproportionately,” he said.

Rosenthal said he appreciates charter schools working to give students opportunities they might not have in schools that receive less funding. But because not all students have access to these schools, he said the model is unsustainable.

“This is one of the areas where you cannot fault a parent for wanting their child to get the best possible education,” he said. “They want to enter the lotteries for these schools because they feel like it’s a better opportunity for their kid. And in some ways, it really is—they get more funding per student, so their facilities can be better equipped.”